One of the easiest and most forgiving houseplants that I know is a member of the genus Sansevaria. Although the plant goes by a number of common names such as devil’s tongue, snake plant and tiger’s tail, its most popular name is mother-in-law’s tongue. Its botanical name is Sansevaria trifasciata. Like many plants which have received their common names over the years because of folklore, superstition, or downright stereotyping, this plant is no different. Its common name obviously refers to its long, tough and sharply pointed leaves – the stereotypical mother-in-law is supposed to have a sharp tongue.
No matter the source of its common name, this plant is a winner for those gardeners who find it a challenge to keep any houseplants growing as well as for those plant lovers who simply want to add another attractive and easy-care houseplant to their collections. Mother-in-law’s tongue is an attractive, architectural plant because of its stiff, upright leaves which can reach almost a metre in height. The leaves are usually dark green with grey/dark-green cross-banding, although newer varieties sometimes have yellow or silvery-white stripes along the leaf margins.
The plants spread by rhizomes, so a pot over time will become quite full and produce innumerable upright leaves to create a large pot of attractive foliage. The plant then becomes suitable for use as a specimen floor plant, and when placed inside an attractive container, it will have a nice impact on the interior landscape of any home. Because Sansevaria plants are quite tolerant of low light levels – in fact mother-in-law’s tongue should not be subjected to too much strong sunlight or the leaves will be burned – the plants can often be positioned in low-light locations that many other plants will not tolerate. If you are one of those people who often forgets to water houseplants, this plant also will be a good choice for you because it does not like too much water and will suffer root rot if it receives too much. In the winter it can go for two months without being watered, but in the summer it should be watered somewhat more often. If the leaves begin to lean over and lose their ability to stand erect, the plant needs water.
Sansevaria trifasciata can be propagated from cuttings or by separating the rhizomes to create new plants. A plant can be left in the same pot for several years and when it finally is divided, there will be lots of rhizomes in the pot to create several new pots of mother-in-law’s tongue. The plant should only be fertilized very occasionally and with a very weak mixture. Although mother-in-law’s tongue can be given a summer holiday outside in a sheltered spot which receives only some morning sun, I am always hesitant to put mine outdoors for fear the foliage will get marked. The leaves are long lasting and its main feature, and if they become badly marked, the plant will be less attractive for a long time before new foliage replaces the damaged leaves.
Easy to care for, forgiving of irregular watering, tolerant of low light levels, and yet producing a beautiful architectural specimen plant for the indoor environment – mother-in-law’s tongue might be a houseplant you may wish to try. If you do, you might also want to refer to it by one of its less common names when your mother-in-law is around!
– Albert Parsons writes from Minnedosa, Manitoba